Monday, March 6, 2017

The Chosen Ones: Scott Burcham, Team Israel, and the Opening Shot of the World Baseball Classic

In the pre-dawn of early-March, not much baseball of consequence is played. Most, if not all of Spring Training is asleep. On the other side of the planet, baseball did matter. The World Baseball Classic, the MLB-funded baseball version of soccer's World Cup, was starting in South Korea. The home team, one of the planet's great baseball powers, was matched up with tournament newcomers Israel. It was supposed to be a relatively easy game for Korea. With a roster comprised of mostly fringe Major Leaguers and Minor League hopefuls with Jewish heritage, Team Israel was meant to pick up their participation medals and go back to their Spring Training camps. All preconceived notions of how this WBC was going to go were soon tossed out of the window. The game was knotted at one, and Scott Burcham stepped into the box with runners on first and third
The World Baseball Classic, even in its infancy, has conjured up magic. In 2009, the Netherlands' "Stunt Honkballers" were a cinderella that gave the second WBC a signature moment. Japan, of course, won the first two tournaments. Only the second, over Korea, was really a contest. Four years later, Team Republica Dominicana blazed a path to the title on the backs of MVP Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz and Fernando Rodney. They had asserted themselves as a new power in international baseball, but the old guard was always a threat.

Japan and Korea, two Asian nations in which baseball has been played nearly as long as we have here in America, remain behemoths of the sport. Their regular season games closely resemble a college football Saturday in the Bible Belt. While the Korea Baseball Organization is not a league on par with Major League Baseball, it has been a recent pipeline for quality talent.

The loose rules which govern eligibility for Team Israel allow for Jewish players, not just Israeli-born players, to join the team. This is similar to the Law of Return, Israeli legislation that deems Jewish people may return to Israel at any time to gain Israeli citizenship. This is how Jason Marquis, Brad Ausmus, Sam Fuld, and many other Jewish Major Leaguers have been able to play for or manage the team. So they have Major League talent, sure, but it usually tops out with journeymen and bench-riders. The most visible player Monday night was a Colorado Rockies prospect who finished 2016 in Single-A.

It started in the Tenth Inning. Yes, I understand that a full baseball game was played before that, complete with stunning turns of momentum and a pitcher nicknamed "The Final Boss," but the moment that will linger past the sixth of March started with an Ike Davis walk. The full-count free pass was a moment in the sun for a man who was on his fifth organization since the end of the 2015 season. Recently acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Davis had a chance to get more high-leverage in-game situations with Team Israel than he likely will in LA. He came on in the eighth inning as a sub for designated hitter Cody Decker, who had been 0 for 3 to that point. A hit in the eighth got him going, but it was the walk that meant something to baseball history.

Ryan Lavarnway, a twenty-nine year old catcher who has yet to amass a full season's worth of games in the Majors, singled. It was Israel's seventh hit of the game, and it moved Ike Davis to third with one out. Lavarnway, now with the Oakland Athletics organization, will most likely not see action of that magnitude for the rest of the year, or maybe ever, but in that moment he was a star, dashing to first base knowing he had done what he lived to do. The WBC has that kind of effect, giving unknowns the chance to be seen and the hidden gems light to glow. Davis and Lavarnway were clutch, but it was the man at the end of the order who helped Team Israel with his bat and his glove in a way that will be remembered in WBC lore.

Scott Burcham was drafted out of the twenty-fifth round by Colorado back in 2015. Monday night in Seoul, he was given five at bats. Baseball is the kind of game that glorifies men who fail sixty percent of the time. As fate would have it, Burcham entered his last at bat with three strikeouts and a hit. One more of the latter would make him a hero. Scott played in sixty-one games last year. Only seventeen of those saw him drive in a run.

Ike Davis had been replaced at third by pinch runner Mike Meyers. Chang-Yong Lim was trying to get out of a jam. He pitched to Burcham's weakness- high and outside. Lim got ahead in the count this way, but in all things, repetition does not always yield positive results. The fourth pitch was high and away as well, and Burcham took a chance. He cued the ball off the end of his bat, driving it to the opposite field on the ground. Second baseman Geonchang Seo would have to make a tough play. He bolted to his left side, up the middle of the infield, and slid to stop the ball. As he quickly bounced up to make a play to first, Seo resisted and held onto the ball. His stop likely saved another run, but the legs of Scott Burcham ran through first base in time. The infield hit scored Meyers from third, putting Team Israel up 2-1.

Baseball is silly. In the bottom half of the tenth, Geonchang Seo grounded to Scott Burcham. That grounder, however, ended in an out. It was still no easy play. Burcham had to lay out for it, then make the throw, but the throw to first is much easier for a shortstop than a second baseman.

Another wrinkle of the World Baseball Classic is the careful control of pitch counts. In the first round, pitchers are limited to fifty pitches. This is good, given that most of their arms will be needed for long stretches over the summer. Josh Zeid, a pitcher who has played for twelve different teams in four organizations since 2009, started the Tenth Inning with thirty four pitches gone. Geonchang Seo went down on three. Jaewon Oh would make him work. Strike. Ball. Ball. Strike. Zeid's fifth pitch to Oh was far outside, nearly getting away from the catcher, Lavarnway. Oh fought off a pitch high and outside to stay alive, but went down swinging on the next one. Otherwise uneventful outs like that become dramatic when there is a pitch limit. Zeid stood at forty four pitches.

Dae-Ho Lee was Korea's last chance to avoid an upset. A whiffed on a pitch high and outside. The next one skirted the zone for a called strike. Lee's resolve was unbroken. He wanted to wait for his pitch. He sat on a ball down and away. Lee held up on the next pitch as well. It was called a ball despite nipping the bottom of the strike zone. The fifth pitch, Zeid's forty-ninth and would-be penultimate pitch, was a breaking ball down and away. Lee swung and caught nothing but air.

The Team Israel crowd erupted in their small conclave of blue and white. The players celebrated in front of home plate. The game was over. Israel had done the unthinkable and beaten Korea. A win in the books means a lot in pool play, as Israel could make a strong case for advancing to the second round with a win against Chinese Taipei (literally being played right now). But let us not lose focus of what happened here today. A team with little chance and a roster of has-beens and some never-will-bes upset an international power and proved that baseball is a game that will always leave the splendor of imagination in its wake.

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